Next, Mack went shopping.
"I bought normal clothes," he recalls. "Modern. Every day for ten years, I'd been wearing the boots and the vest and the buckskin and all that there."
At Mack's Country, all that there now lies in a heap in the corner: three pairs of thigh-high riding boots; a reproduction saddle circa 1893, embellished with angora goat hair; a buffalo-nickel-encrusted show harness; a bevy of bullwhips; a "naughty Nelly," used by authentic cowboys for boot removal; and much, much more, including several versions of a white cowboy hat, its rim bent back on the right side.
"There's a lot of theories why," Mack explains. "Maybe his hat got that way from running into the wind on his horse, or maybe it was some style left over from the Union Army -- but the true story is that Buffalo Bill Cody had to be able to see if he was going to shoot straight."
Discussing such arcane details of Buffalo Bill Cody's life comes as naturally as breathing to Mack, who's spent the past decade as a high-profile Buffalo Bill reenactor. Less in character is his sudden decision to cut his hair, quit show business and look to the future instead of the past. Although Mack has yet to issue a definitive reason for this move -- he has at least twenty to choose from, he says -- he's determined to cut all ties to Cody. And so on August 18, all of the Buffalo Bill bric-a-brac he's acquired over the past ten years will be auctioned off in Garden City.
"Mack McMahon professionally portrayed 'Buffalo Bill' Cody as he traveled throughout the US for many years reads at hundreds of shows until his retirement today," pronounces the flier for the auction, which bears a marked resemblance to the posters Buffalo Bill himself used to promote his Wild West shows. "He has accumulated an unbelievable collection of Buffalo Bill props, Artifacts, Costumes, Promotional Items & Memorabilia. This will be a lifetime opportunity to purchase in one day what Mack 'Buffalo Bill' McMahon has spent many years and thousands of miles accumulating. You won't want to miss the very special event."
The repercussions of this special event will be huge -- not just in Missouri, not just in Colorado, where Buffalo Bill was buried, but in the rest of the Western-obsessed world, everywhere from EuroDisney just outside Paris to the London headquarters of British Airways to Germany, where cowboys and Indians, real or imaginary, are treated as royalty.
News of Mack's auction has set into motion a migration of Bills, dozens of whom will converge on Garden City this week, hoping to find more of what a working Cody needs to have. "We have a busload coming from Denver," says Gwen, Mack's wife.
The auction has also raised the bittersweet notion that even the Greatest Showman on Earth (or his reasonable facsimile) can't hang around forever.
"A lot of the Bills working right now are just plain long in the tooth," says Ralph Melfi, a middle-aged Bill from Denver. At the auction, those reigning Bills may catch sight of their rightful heirs for the first time.
"This thing is going to be a crowd," Mack says. "People are coming from ten states. We're going to need hot dogs, sodas, chips and all that there just to feed them all. I'm expecting a whole lot of people and a whole lot of Bills."
The most authentic Cody accessory Mack is selling could well be his horse, Jake, a seasoned show-business veteran who can do forty tricks in the show ring and will shake his head yes or no to polite questions. Mack claims to have saved Jake from the rendering plant and then spent thousands on his training. He says he will miss his equine partner more than any of the hundreds of faux cowboys and saloon ladies he worked with during his decade as Bill.
"Yeah, but when I make up my mind, that's it. There's no turning back," Mack concludes. "Once I started with Bill, I sold and sold and sold to keep my show going. Every T-shirt I put on, I could look at it and think, yeah, I had a good time there, and it only cost me about a thousand dollars. My wife finally tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Honey -- hey dummy -- you are broke.'"
Garden City's claims to fame are few. Tony and Minnie Washington, direct descendants of George Washington, lived here briefly in the nineteenth century. As the marker at the end of the town's quiet, two-block business stretch explains it: "This family might have been the royal family had the U.S. become a kingdom." But it didn't, and they weren't, and finally the Washingtons left town. So did the two decent Mexican restaurants that once served up tacos on Main Street. A hand-lettered sign in the window of Jim and Jean's Body Shop promises "Farm Fresh Eggs From Runaround Chickens," but no one's around to sell them.
And then there was Mack's Country, which anyone in town will tell you has been closed for the past month.
"They don't do the Wild West shows anymore," says a woman at the historic-hotel-turned-gift-shop-and-junk-store. "Mack's out there ripping apart his town with a crowbar."
"Well, you know, he had that old Western-town theme thingie. Not now, though."
On the south edge of Garden City, right by Mack's Trailer Park and across from his modest, somewhat modern house, is what remains of Farrell McMahon's vast old Western-style land holdings: a street filled with carefully reconstructed Wild West structures, including a general store, saloon, antique windmill, barn and corrals. (The post office and jail have already fallen to Mack's crowbar.)
"Well, we tried to sell the property as a complete town and amusement, but no one wanted it," Mack explains. "And we used to have a hundred people in the saloon here for food, drink and a show."
Today the saloon is crammed -- from its tiny triangular stage to its antique bar back -- not with people, but with reenactment relics, including rack after rack of period costuming once worn by Mack's Gang, a group of amateur gunfighter impersonators. "We did skits -- fifteen minutes and a lot of shooting," Mack remembers. "It was all flash and flair -- I learned that from Bill Cody. He liked flash and flair, too. So much so that he kept on giving them 'farewell performances' until someone finally told him to give it a rest."
In Mack's office behind the saloon, where a TV blares the movie Dr. Detroit and cigarette smoke fills the air, the clutter is so thick that it looks like a tornado has raised the building from its foundations in order to shake the good stuff out onto the floor. Mack extracts a photo album from one of the piles and locates a picture of himself some forty years ago, back in his high school days, playing the part of a vigilante in a reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral. "See that? Growing up, I didn't know anything but to ride," he says. "Here I am with another horse...and this is a trick mule I had. I've always liked an audience. I did some radio and TV announcing."
A career Air Force man and a Missouri native, Mack moved to Garden City in the early '70s, where his empire-building/ property-acquisition phase roughly coincided with his realization that he was an alcoholic.
"I quit drinking for health reasons," he says. "My wife told me she would castrate me if I didn't, and castration would have been terrible for my health."
Retired at 37 with energy to burn, Mack started a number of small businesses, including the trailer park, and experimented with American-style leisure by driving around the country in a well-appointed RV for a year. "Once I got sober, I had to do something," he points out. But he remained restless. "Shuffleboard," he shudders. "I'll never be old enough for it."
He seemed exactly the right age, however, for Old West reenactments, in which a gang of Western characters act out a fifteen-minute skit that usually ends in murderous gunplay or cornball, family-style humor.
"They throw competitions," Mack explains. "You can win for guns or authenticity or showmanship. The last big skit we did involved a lady being kicked out of the bank, because women can't own land in the Old West. Then you see me whipping my kids out of town. Then all hell breaks loose, you see a woman dragging me down the street with a rope, and then another gal shoots the banker right through the stomach. It was called 'Sweet Revenge.' The whole thing took fifteen minutes, no more."
By the time "Sweet Revenge" debuted in 1994 at a show sponsored by the American Federation of Old West Reenactors, Mack had gathered a posse of loyal cowboys and girls. Most came from towns in Missouri or Kansas, and several had to drive over 150 miles to get to rehearsal. But it was at home in Garden City that Mack found the backbone of his cast. Recruiting was easy, he says.
"Once in a while a guy would tell me he loves to shoot but can't act. I'd say, 'Hell, you're married, ain't you?' And they'd have to admit I had a point," he remembers. "I took amateurs and turned them into something. Every once in a while, I turned them into terrible big egos."
In the beginning, Mack's Gang performed for needy kids at holiday events held at Mack's Country. But as word spread, people were willing to become part of paying audiences.
"It took off like the plague," agrees Ron McMillan, a Garden City neighbor who honed Village Idiot and Preacher characters in his years with Mack's Gang. "I had done a little summer stock as a teen. I had a propensity for the theater. And once upon a time, years later, this thing took off."
Since the closing of Mack's Country also broke up Mack's Gang, McMillan has focused on a Native American character he plays with such sincerity that he carves his own flutes, tans his own hides and sleeps year-round in a teepee set up in his suburban back yard.
Mack's niece Vendla Bramble was also bitten by the Old West bug, creating and perfecting a ruthless outlaw alter ego she calls Liza Blue.
"She gut-shot a guy," Bramble relates. "She has steely blue eyes. She hates men because they beat the crap out of her. She's likely to whip her derringer out of her bonnet, do a rolling somersault dive and take a man down." The "Sweet Revenge" skit -- in which Mack is dragged out of town by a gang of female vigilantes -- inspired Bramble to start her own all-girl gang, also called Sweet Revenge.
"As a matter of fact, I'm four or five members short right now," she sighs. "Kids and real life and all that are always interfering. But I have to go on. Another gang, this bunch of real macho guys, hated that 'Sweet Revenge' skit so much they fought back with a skit where they ended up tarring and feathering a schoolmarm. Genuine hatred is what I feel for them," she says, a murderous glint in her eyes, "and I think that could work real well at a competition."
Tom Gregory, a Buffalo Soldier reenactor from Kansas City, ran into Mack at a Wild West show; he was the only member of his all-black cavalry company to accept the offer to visit Mack's Country.
"I ended up playing with him six years," Gregory says. "I did Cherokee Bill, an outlaw from that time who was hung at Fort Smith, Arkansas, for murder. Then I played Bass Reed, the first black U.S. marshal. I did Jim Beckwourth a few times, and even a Sergeant Gregory. I don't know if we're related, but I'm tracing it back. All my life I'd loved history and been a cowboy, but when I got into it with Mack, I got into it really deeply."
What started as a hobby led to the movies: Gregory served as an extra in Ride With the Devil and Buffalo Soldier. Once a man masters the costuming arts, he says, it's not difficult to get cast. What's harder is dealing with the real world.
"I go into city schools as a Buffalo Soldier, wanting to make kids proud of our heritage, and I can't bring a weapon?" he asks incredulously. "Times have really changed."
In fact, Gregory suspects that burnout had more to do with Mack's retirement than economics. "I don't do the Buffalo Soldier so much anymore, and Mack's out there wearing tennis shoes, but I will become a soldier again for him," he says. "I will attend his auction in character, to show support."
Mack didn't fall into character as quickly as some of his disciples did. He put in a few years as Robert E. Lee, but the role never really resonated. Assorted cowboys came and went. And then, finally, he found himself in Buffalo Bill Cody. With his white hair grown out and the first of many beaded buckskin jackets on his back, Mack discovered that he shared Cody's innate desire to banter with a crowd. Before long, Mack was appearing at parades, grand openings and rodeos. As Buffalo Bill, he no longer needed a make-believe skit: Cody's own life had been dramatic enough, and all Mack had to do was relive it -- the showman as showoff.
True to Bill's form, he befriended an Annie Oakley look-alike as well as a Calamity Jane, who was high-strung and hard-drinking but authentic as she could be. "One time I was walking with her through a fairground," Mack relates, "and someone said, 'Oh, look! It's Annie Oakley!' Jane turned on them, spat, and said, 'You idiots! Do I look like, by God, Annie Oakley to you?'"
Over the next seven years, Mack experienced some of the celebrity enjoyed by the real Buffalo Bill Cody throughout most of his life. He traveled farther and farther afield to show off his Bill impression, adding more and more authentic accoutrements and commissioning detailed replicas of saddles, boots, gloves, hats, belt buckles -- anything Cody was known to have owned or worn. In 1999 he won the prestigious Buffalo Bill look-alike contest held annually at Denver's Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant, where the real Cody hung out.
Financial success never seemed far away. So when the money began to run out, Mack sold off chunks of his Garden City property to keep his career alive.
"I tried to market myself, and it didn't work," Mack now admits. "Or it didn't work well enough. Also, I was too close to Bill, and his life was dogged by tragedy. His finger was almost tore off in a riding accident, only one of his children survived him, and his wife Lulu put up with a lot of crap from him. I had a great time doing him, but I was too engrossed. I lost a quarter-million dollars, so I'm just doing what he should have done: Quit."
"I tell you what," Mack says, fanning his face with his hat as a defense against the 100-degree heat. "I do not miss that long hair and beard or them hot clothes. It wasn't normal. Normal people don't do what I did."
Fortunately for the financial prospects of Mack's auction, Buffalo Bill reenactors are not normal people. Nevertheless, the Old West reenactment business is a grand tradition, with some 130 years of history and showmanship behind it -- for the first Buffalo Bill impersonator was none other than Bill Cody himself.
"The first 25 years of his life, Cody did just about everything a man might want to do," says Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and Grave (and gift shop) on Lookout Mountain Road in Golden. "He hunted buffalo, rode for the Pony Express and came to Pikes Peak for the gold rush -- although he was a pathetic gold-miner. He was the scout of choice for the Army, and dime novels were written about him. At 25, when he went to New York, he was the toast of the town."
To Cody's amazement, a play about his life was running in the theater district. "Naturally, he went to see it," Friesen continues. "He must have thought, 'Hey, why should this guy get all the money playing me? I could play me.'"
This is how Cody, longtime friend of Wild Bill Hickock and dime novelist Ned Buntline, happened to open in a production called Scouts of the Prairie the following year. By all accounts, it featured a hastily written, stilted script and lousy acting, much of it committed by Cody.
"It was panned by the critics," Friesen says. "They thought Bill was a rotten actor but a wonderful stage presence. If only he could just be himself."
(Occasionally, he could. One story has him advancing to the footlights, where his wife was seated in the front row. "Oh, Mama," he reportedly said, "I'm a terrible actor.")
The next year, after spending the summer on the prairie, Cody, Hickock and Buntline returned to New York in Scouts of the Plains.
"This time they acted out real things," Friesen says. "It was much better. They ran around on stage shooting off their guns and yelling. Wild Bill thought that was such a hoot. He liked to discharge his gun right in an actor's face, give him powder burns and say, 'Now you look like a real Indian.'"
Cody went on to start his own Wild West show in 1883, which featured a huge cast of Native Americans, cowboys and Mexican vaqueros. By the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the financial and popular high point for Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the entire company had toured Europe several times, and trick shooters and Russian Cossacks had joined the "Congress of Roughriders." It was then that Cody impersonators began to crop up -- most notably one Samuel Cowdry, who changed his name to Cody, grew the requisite hair and bought the requisite wardrobe, and went into show business until a lawsuit filed by the real Cody stopped him.
After Cody's death, in 1917, a new wave of impersonators swelled up. It has yet to crest.
Today there are at least three home ports for Buffalo Bill Cody memorabilia -- Denver; North Platte, Nebraska; and Cody, Wyoming -- all of which routinely duke it out as Bill world headquarters. And beyond that, there are endless possibilities, as more and more museums embrace the idea of living history and more and more American events stress a connection to the Old West.
At the Buffalo Bill museum in Golden, the line between impersonator and academic is often very thin indeed.
"There are an awful lot of Bills out there," says Friesen, whose museum maintains a database of Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Soldiers, Annie Oakleys, Belle Starrs and other denizens of the long-gone West. Friesen himself became Wyatt Earp for a trip to London, taken in the company of a Buffalo Bill, a Calamity Jane and a Sitting Bull, when British Airways introduced service to Denver. But Friesen, a peace-loving Mennonite, never really nailed the role. "I'm too analytical," he confesses. "Reenactors in general are not. They are not professional historians, but they're very good amateurs. And then there's the matter of being an actor. They're actors of a different kind. They become Buffalo Bill. And yet it's interesting -- if you give them lines, they have problems and develop actual stage fright. You have to let them improvise."
Which they are not only willing but eager to do, judging by the museum's front-desk gossip one recent morning.
"Tom and Terry are back," exhibit coordinator Kimary Marchese tells Friesen. "He's wanting to do Cody again, and he's available on weekends. He has a very nice chuckwagon."
"Have you heard from any of the young Bills?" Friesen asks.
"Oh, sure. There's Lance and then there's Kirk. And another guy, in Deer Trail, isn't it?"
"Any word about Mack?"
"Terry heard a rumor he'd grown his hair back. That he wasn't really quitting at all. But then I got a notice about this auction."
Neither Marchese nor Friesen will be attending the auction. "Mack's stuff is good reproductions," says Friesen, "but we're seeking out original Wild West artifacts."
In a pinch, Marchese passes as Annie Oakley. "She was petite and I'm not," she admits, "but I just went ahead and picked the outfit that made the most sense with my figure, and when we're short an Annie Oakley around here, I step in."
Her boyfriend Tom does a generic riverboat-gambler type. On any given weekend, an assortment of Civil War veterans, desperadoes, Victorian ladies and saloon girls can be found in the hills around Golden. It pays -- more in terms of satisfaction than remuneration -- to be flexible. Nevertheless, in other locations where Bills crop up, the occasional very specific John Wayne, Tom Mix or Roy Rogers has been known to appear. In Missouri, there's even a Mild Midwest Harry Truman.
No one would be surprised to see any of these amateur actors at Mack's auction. But this time it's the Codys who count.
"If you portray Cody, you can portray the entire West," says Kirk Shapland of Dighton, Kansas. Shapland calls himself "The Cody of the Plains" and is thought to be a leading practitioner of the Young Bill school of reenacting.
Fittingly, he started early. At fifteen, he and a friend volunteered for living-history training at Fort Hays, Kansas. "My friend portrayed a soldier, and I was supposed to, but I wanted to do a scout impression," he recalls. "Actually, I was interested in Wild Bill Hickock, who'd been the unofficial marshal at Hays, but I was too young, and the curator didn't want anyone doing a specific character."
Eventually, Shapland grew into a different role.
"I got older, and my hair got longer and my facial hair came in," he says. "The Fort has lots of pictures of Cody, and I guess I favored him, because people just began to assume that's who I was supposed to be. I was a bit relieved not to be taken for Hickock. As Cody, I didn't have to be quite the killer."
Shapland's portrayal evolved until it became the plainsman he is today -- the Cody of 1867-1869, a wild young man in his early twenties who had yet to be seduced by the muse he called The Show Business. At reenactments, 29-year-old Shapland sets up an entire buffalo camp, complete with dressed carcasses, a teepee and the appropriate firearms.
"I've been asked if I'm the reincarnation of Cody, but I don't think so," he says. "I talk about the man in the third person. I represent what he would have looked like and what he had, and I'm not sure we had all that much in common."
Still, Cody's life has bled into Shapland's. He never leaves the house without putting on a trademark white Cody hat, even if he's wrangling cattle or mowing lawns, two jobs he does to make ends meet. Money is tight, especially when his budget has to cover buckskin coats, thigh-high boots and whalebone corset stays. (Shapland's wife, Ella, is said to do a decent "composite Victorian woman.")
Nevertheless, Shapland has his eye on a buffalo robe set to be auctioned off. "It would add to my camp," he says, "and anyway, I'd like to go and see Mack. I can't believe he quit. He never had the pinpoint accuracy, but he was great with showmanship and personality, which is Bill to a T."
"Oh, we're all looking for a little something, and Mack probably has it," says Melfi, the Wheat Ridge financial planner who specializes in Middle-Aged Bill. "The only way to put together a Cody ensemble is with little bits and pieces. You go to stores and auctions, and, of course, the Internet is wonderful. You can go on eBay, and there is so much interest in reenactment."
Melfi, a fourth-generation Coloradan, says he has always "lived the life of cowboys and Indians, if only mentally," and was first spotted as a dead ringer for Cody at the Buckhorn in 1977.
"Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the Robert Altman movie, had just come out, and someone told me I looked more like Buffalo Bill than Paul Newman did," he remembers. "I strutted around like a peacock and felt wonderful about it."
Melfi became an active member of the American Federation of Old West Reenactors (AFOWR.com), where he mastered the fifteen-minute skit as well as his Cody. "But I'm versatile," he adds. "I do cavalry officers. I was General Merritt for the BBC a while back, and I often do Captain Miles Keogh, one of Custer's men. He was an Irish soldier of fortune, so I can use lots of 'hell' and 'damn' and 'arse.' In the middle of a scene, I am Miles Keogh. My whole mind is there."
As fate would have it, his wife-to-be is Annie Oakley, as well as Calamity Jane and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white Indian captive. Melfi's son, however, is immune. "Last time I mentioned doing Captain Keogh, he suggested I do Captain Kangaroo next," Melfi says. At the time, Melfi had no zippy reply, but now he does. "Captain Kangaroo?" he should have asked his son. "What unit is he with?"
Such a quip would be useless to Al Huffman, who has been Denver's reigning Bill -- or "ol' Cody," as he puts it -- for the past thirty years. Since there was no Captain Kangaroo at the time of ol' Cody's demise, he makes a poor conversation topic. Because when you're talking with Huffman, you're talking with Colonel Cody or, in a pinch, Bill.
"I probably would have et antelope, if they had it," he says over a slice of buffalo prime rib at the Buckhorn Exchange. "I liked that. I also enjoyed a Stone Fence, which is rye whiskey, apple cider and a twist of lime."
In fact, Cody often enjoyed Stone Fences to excess, in the very saloon upstairs at the Buckhorn. But when this is pointed out, Huffman takes offense. "I did taper off to just about nothing," he says.
History supports this: By the time the real Cody passed on, at 83, he had indeed tapered to almost nothing. But Huffman's impressionistic zeal, combined with the fact that he's been doing Cody so long, tends to blur the edges. "I used to be able to ride my horse into the bar at the Plains Hotel and drink a beer," Huffman -- or is that Cody himself? -- says, "but they remodeled it so you can't ride a horse in there at all anymore."
You can ride a horse at Huffman's Buffalo-Bill inspired bunkhouse on his property in Evergreen, where the fridge contains a Coors Light or two.
"I can talk for about twenty minutes on any part of ol' Cody's life," Huffman elaborates. "That's what they had me do down at the Broadmoor or over at that ol' Summit of the Eight. I can tell all about how I got together my Wild West Show and how I had 230 Indians with me. And I talk about how Doc sent me over to Glenwood Springs when I got sick, but I came back to my sister's house on Lafayette Street and died there. And there's another thing, too. They say I should have been buried at Cody, but I was a showman first and foremost, and if I'd a been buried at Cody, maybe a bunch of ol' sheepherders would have turned out for my funeral. As it was, my funeral in Denver was as good as a president's -- 26,000 people -- in 1917. That's pretty good."
During Huffman's first fifteen years as ol' Cody, he hung on to his job at Gates Rubber. After that, he retired. "Hell, it got to be full-time doing ol' Cody," he elaborates. "One summer I was in Germany five times! And I've been to Ireland, England, and they wanted me at EuroDisney in Paris. For eight months!"
By the time his Bill career peaked a few years ago, the turning-seventy Huffman no longer had to use artificial whitener on his hair and beard -- nature had taken care of it. The look-alike contest he'd helped to start at the Buckhorn (and which, according to the bylaws, can be won only once by a contestant) had run through twenty different winners. He had two steady sidemen to help with equipment and skits: "a plain old cowboy I call Fetch-n-get, and ol' Red Bear -- he's an Indian." He'd even built a show tent similar to the one in which Cody relaxed between shows, with its old Army bed and buffalo robes. Whether he might still be missing any bit of Bill, and whether he might find it at Mack's auction, Huffman is reluctant to say.
"I did hear he had quite a collection of original posters," he offers. "I know who he got them from, and I would have liked to have gotten them first."
There is a certain symmetry between Mack's auction and the quietly whispered rumor that Huffman himself may retire.
"I've said that myself," Huffman admits. "I might even do it."
But that would mean giving up Bill -- no easy feat after all this time in the spotlight.
"And I do kind of feel like him," Huffman says. "A couple of years ago, out at the Stock Show, I particularly did. They played ol' Cody's music, and the crowd was the same -- or at least that's how they looked. They cheered so hard it made the hair come up on the back of my neck."
As auction day approaches, Mack gets busier, but never too busy for coffee at Cox's Diner, a business that, like a few others in Garden City, was once owned by Mack.
"Hell, we have coffee three times a day in these little towns," he says, looking around at the company. Three babies in high chairs are stationed near the window. A waitress sits across the room with a friend, speculating on the faithlessness of someone named Nick. Ron McMillan, the former Village Idiot and current Native American craftsman, comes in from an afternoon of weed whacking.
"Usually there's someone in here who wants to know what I'm going to do next," Mack says. "I like to say, 'Oh, I think I'm going to do what you do. Maybe I'll open a car wash kind of like yours, or I might do small-engine repair.' I like to make them nervous that way, even if it is a fib. Bill told a lot of fibs, you know."
And Bill's still drinking a lot of coffee -- maybe three times a day in Cox's Diner?
"Could be," Mack admits. "As kids, we all wanted to be someone else. And we still do, don't we?"